Kevin Rhodes - conductor: just for the record
A long awaited get-together, at last.
I once had to cancel this interview – due to health problems – and I was extremely grateful that Mr. Rhodes, agreed to another meeting, in a very uncomplicated manner, after his next return from America. After checking his rehearsal schedules, we agreed to meet on June 11th for lunch. I picked him up at the stage door of the Opera and we walked to a delicious Italian Restaurant which we both like. On the way I began to realize that once more I was dealing with a very “down to earth” person, a low profile (why do “the” really great ones always have a low profile?) with no affectations.
I won’t go into biographical details – Mr. Rhodes is a very well-known personality in the world of Art and you can read all about him on http://kevinrhodesconductor.com , a page I strongly recommend for its precise and very accurate content. I wanted, during this interview to talk more about facts that are NOT on his page, things that may look very “unimportant” but that are extremely necessary to be able to understand the full character, the personality of the interviewed person.
We will concentrate today on his fabulous career as a Ballet conductor – not the Concert and Opera conductor (I would not dare go into this Terrain), but the Ballet Conductor that has always throughout the years impressed me so much with his genius, vitality and sensibility.
After ordering some Pasta (I think he ordered grilled octopus) and chatting for a while, “warming-up” as I usually say, I started with a question that I had always wanted to ask him: “Kevin, I always wanted to ask… have you ever done some ballet training?” He smiled and said simply “No. Never. Why do you ask?”
“Because I am always so impressed by your empathy for the dancers… During the two last performances from "Balanchine – Neumeier – Robbins" that I went to this year, I had the chance to be once sitting just behind you – I could nearly “touch” the energy that emanated from you as a conductor to the stage. Another evening I sat in a box, just over the orchestra, and paid even more attention to your total concentration with was going on – onstage – a perfect symbiosis for me, as if there was no difference between Conductor, Orchestra and Dancers. I was fascinated! Just think of the keyword “Tempo”” I said, in what seemed to me like a long soliloquy.
“I always try to make a special effort at every performance. We rehearse in a certain tempo but this is not necessarily the Tempo of the performance itself. I cannot say in advance how it is going to be. I must feel it. It is like a lottery… “, he says jokingly to what I have to answer “Which you seem to be winning all the time”.
“Everyone feels different every day. If dancers would feel the same and act the same every day, in every single performance, they would be no Artists but robots… There is a “biorhythm” to consider…“
“I remember this so very special rapport between you and the dancers in one performance of D.Q. with Liudmila Konovalova… “. Once more he stops for a second as if remembering, bringing vivid real memories back from the past and says: “Think of Kitri’s famous diagonal… the one in which she uses the castanets. I always tell the soloists: Close your ears, make your steps on your own tempo and I’ll adapt myself and the Orchestra to you! That is it.” And he continues with a beautiful statement – as clear as water: “There is every single time something new – that is the magic of it. We do not recreate rehearsals on stage. Rehearsals are to teach us how to correct “things” but they are not real performances. I try to “challenge” the flexibility of the Orchestra. One can never foresee what is going to happen. And that is the most exciting thing about performances. But one has his “own” rules: I always say: Never start faster than you can finish it”
And I thought “Yes, I see it! And not Everyone is able to do that!”
“When you start rehearsing a new piece, a piece you had never conducted before – let us think about “Sylvia” for example – how is your “approach” to the music?” I ask.
“Even though I played Piano – that is how my musical education started – I always contemplate the music from its theatrical side… This is my way. You see, originally I wanted to be a Movie director. “Dracula”, “Frankenstein” impressed me a lot as a child (My first experience with horror movies was James Whale’s “The bride of Frankenstein” with Elsa Lanchester...). But then I realized and asked myself what would have been of those films if they hadn’t music, a musical score, a real soundtrack in fact? At this very moment it all started for me. When I realized that music can be a very sensitive emotion carrier”
“And then you started taking lessons?”
“Yes, I told my parents that I wanted to learn to play the piano – and they bought me one and I started having classes” he says clearly remembering these days very vividly.
“You parents had a musical background?”
He laughs loudly and say “Not at all. They had a small diner, often frequented by truck drivers, in Indiana. I remember once practising and practising either Chopin or Beethoven, my father entering my room and saying “When are you gonna learn a normal song, boy?" Both of us started giggling.
“This is beautiful information – especially the theatrical side of approaching a piece of music… Is Sylvia really completely new territory for you? “
“Absolutely” he answers “Up to now I could only devote little time to it. Now, in the summer a lot more! It also occurs to me that this work perhaps more than most ballets, owes a lot to the pre-R. Strauss era of Romantic Orchestral Tone Poems, like those of Liszt, Dvorak and certainly those of his fellow Frenchman, Saint-Saëns. I would also say that discovering the piece, the score was THE revelation for me. Fascinating! ”
“You have worked with 50 Orchestra’s in 15 different countries. Your connection to Vienna is also quite a strong one. Since 23 years, is this right?”
“Yes, it is. I started working professionally with 16, my parents died when I was 18 and then I was from this moment on “on my own”. My first work in Vienna was in 1994 at the Volksoper – Coppelia, which was my first experience ever with Delibes. Then I started one year later to work at the State Opera. I was a very young conductor, just 31 years old, and all of a sudden I had, without a rehearsal, my first experience conducting this orchestra. I clearly remember entering the pit for the first time in Vienna for that first performance (Nutcracker, BTW which I’ll conduct next season for the first time since that day!!) and looking at all those "familiar faces" ! I mean the "shock" of recognizing all of these faces from TV broadcasts of the Beethoven symphonies with Bernstein back when I was in high school. That remains an amazing memory to this day!!"
I had seen them in Broadcasts and on Tours… On my first opening Night an elderly Viennese Gentleman came to me and said “Mit Ihnen war es ein Genuss zu Musizieren Gesternabend !” (“With you, it was a pleasure to make music last night!" This surely was one of the biggest compliments ever!)”
“Future plans, Kevin?”
“I am definitely staying also in the Ballet branch… but you, Ricardo, I don’t see it as “Ballet only”. I look at my work and I see it as combining two worlds that should not be apart: a symphonic work and a theatrical/ballet piece that tells a story!”
Thank you VERY MUCH, Kevin, for your time, simplicity, uncomplicated ways and pleasure in giving me this interview. It was a real honour for me to learn so many "stories" of your life. Stories that have not been published before.
Bravo, Maestro, Grazie mille!